Let me begin by telling you how I became known as “Jack”.
I was eight years old when we moved to my Grandmother’s big old house in the woods. My father had been wounded in the war and my grandfather had just died. ‘Grandma’ needed help and my father could work the farm machinery, pretty much.
I had said all my nearly tearful good byes to my friends, and was ready to ride for almost a week in the back seat of our aging van, with a mountain of bags and boxes between me and my 6 year old sister, Annie. Mom had to do all the driving and Dad was not happy to think of himself as a cripple, so he was pretty much unhappy with everything. After several barrages of angry words on the first day, every time I said anything or asked the simplest of questions, I sat and sulked in silence for the next couple days.
We slept in a motel the first night and then spent two nights parked in camp grounds, sleeping in the late summer heat inside the van. We had a choice between leaving the windows closed and being eaten alive by mosquitos.
On the fourth day we stopped and visited somebody Dad knew from the army. This guy had a ranch. He had lost one arm and half of one leg- they’d been blown up in the same ambush. Dad had both arms and most of both legs. He had prosthetic feet. (Annie could talk about his ‘prophetic feet’ and get away with it- I couldn’t even think about mentioning that without having my head screamed off. She didn’t know better, or that was the argument. She knew better enough to stick her tongue out at me and later whisper, “Ha ha- I got you in trouble again.” When I complained she denied it and they believed her. I silently vowed to get even if it took me the rest of my life to do so.)
So anyway, the guy my dad had spent so many weeks with in various hospitals and then the flight back and the same barracks for two more months while their discharges and ‘compensation packages’, and their ‘prophetic limbs’ were being ordered, then fitted and tweaked, had this pop up trailer with ‘good screens’ that he, ‘could let yas borrow, ya just gotta give it back-‘ and he had his brother fit the van with a hitch to pull it… so for the rest of the trip we could stay in camp sites in relative cool, without fear of being eaten alive by mosquitos. Trouble was, the trailer smelled bad and it had fleas. Maybe the bed they assigned me was the only one with fleas, but they ate me alive. Nobody believed me the fourth night, but on the fifth night I had big red welts to show them. People in the camper next to us told us we had to get rid of that bed, but Dad said it wasn’t his… They found somebody with bug spray and made me sleep in the hot van again.
Luckily, it was a bit cooler that night. And when we started going in the morning, I thought we had entered the biggest forest in the world. Maybe we did, but I was more than impressed. I also wondered if there really was a hungry bear behind every tree. I told Annie there was, and she cried to Mom and Dad and had something else to stick her tongue out for and revel over getting me in trouble again.
Just before noon we stopped at a yard sale and the people there had a window screen that had been made specifically for our make and model van. (They saw my big purple welts and asked what happened, I said, “Bugs. and now they make me sleep in the hot van because the spray is toxic.” They insisted we take their window screen, free, they wouldn’t no for an answer- The farmer said, “Princess Patricia’s- we lost too many lately-” and Dad stopped arguing (and later covered his tattoos) but then he screamed at me for saying anything- he didn’t want no [bloody would have been an euphemism, he didn’t use euphemisms. Annie’s eye popped wide and she covered her mouth to hide her delight at Dad screaming the eff word at me… Mom turned pale and glared at me like it was my fault-] charity.
So we pulled into Grandma’s about maybe three hours later. Grandma was nearly six feet tall (almost as tall as Dad) and had big flabby arms that looked like she probably could have picked up a full grown bull and thrown it a hundred feet in her prime. She was all happy to see us and sat and cried with mom and dad for almost an hour while Annie and I had to find something to keep us busy until dinner time.
The house was amazing. It was a huge old farmhouse, mostly brick, but some stone, and a little bit of wood construction. It probably looked like a big capital”I” from above, with big long (or wide) top and bottom cross pieces or whatever you call that, or maybe you could call it a double inverted capital ‘T” ? It had been built into a hill side, in stages, so the newest section was where Grandma actually lived and the older sections were back farther, gathering dust, and storing loads of stuff from Dad’s brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles, and people who would never come back to claim anything… but it was there, because Grandpa had said he would keep it for them and Grandma wasn’t going to go against his word- Not even now… so Annie and I were finally given our choice of two of the bedrooms that weren’t full of antiques and treasures of questionable value-
Annie picked the one with the pinkish purple wallpaper. It was the smaller of the two rooms, up a flight of stairs, around a corner and down at the end of a long squeaky hallway from the room I then had to take whether I wanted it or not. Nobody would ever be able to sneak up on her.
I got a room with a floor that had three different levels, and two ninety degree turns through a section that was long and narrow with three stairs up and five steps down and two big closets, and then there was the wider section, way in the back, where it had a big built in bed with a small moldy mattress, built in drawers and and a ‘shelf” that was at least four feet deep and six feet wide. Dad said it had been his uncle’s room. The uncle who tried to kill himself twice and then maybe put himself in the line of fire so somebody else killed him, and he got a medal for being a hero.
Mom looked sick as he told me that, but she didn’t say anything.
And then it was dinner time.
Grandma was a terrible cook. Everything tasted like cardboard and felt like rotten rice on my tongue. But when I whispered that it was awful to Mom, she told me to eat every bite and don’t I dare complain about it.
I gagged and choked my way through dinner, but didn’t let Grandma see that.
Annie loved every minute of it, but she was having just as much trouble eating as I was.
I threw up about half an hour after dinner.
Grandma heard it and came to the bathroom door while Mom was patting me on the back and rubbing my neck, and bellowed, “Boy probably caught some bug on your way here, but don’t let him think that gets him out of his chores in the morning. I expect him up at five, ready to go to work.”
Mom walked beside me on the way to my new bedroom (at six p.m.)
Annie cackled and whispered, “You’re room’s haunted, I know it.” then ran away laughing.
For once, Mom heard her, I had one consolation as I climbed onto the stinky old mattress with the clean crisp sheets. I could hear Mom yelling at Annie. I discovered that the huge ‘shelf’ was right up next to Annie’s bed. There was an old iron grate six inches above her floor, under her bed. On my side, the grate was up near the ceiling. I could climb up there and see their feet walking around, I could tell it was Annie’s room because the pinkish wall paper was visible behind their ankles. I still felt lousy, but I had a plan. I sat there on the shelf and waited.
I woke up as Annie was saying her prayers with Mom at her side. I heard them kiss and heard Mom say she was going to go check on me, so I quietly crawled, jumped down , ran and jumped up into bed, pulled the sheet up over me and tried to look like I’d been sound asleep. I could hear Mom coming the whole way- across the creaky floorboards in the hallway, down the creaky stairs, around the corner, She knocked on my door and then just came in, walked through the ups and downs of my twisting internal hallway got to my bedside, sat down, gasped, covered her nose, said, “Oh god- we have to replace that mattress.”
“Huh?” I pretended to wake up.
“Oh nothing, how are you feeling?”
“Sick-” I grumbled.
Mom nodded, “Okay, but remember what your grandmother said. I have to wake you up at five in the morning and you better be ready for whatever chores she’s got in mind for you.”
I groaned, tried to sound like I was dying.
She kissed my forehead and gasped, “God, that mattress smells awful.”
I nodded in agreement and she went away.
I almost fell asleep. then I got up and crept to the shelf, climbed up, crept over to the grate and moaned in my scariest, deepest, most ghostly voice. I moaned maybe three times, trying to sound deeper and scarier each time.
“Who’s there?” Annie sounded scared.
I moaned one more time.
Annie shrieked and ran, slammed her door behind her and ran screaming, “There’s somebody in my room-“
I ran back to my bed and hopped in and reveled at the commotion that followed.
Maybe an hour later Mom and Dad went back up into Annie’s room and sat there for a while, then Dad said, “Maybe it was the wind…. shit, I can’t keep climbing up here every time she hears something go bump in the night. And she can’t sleep with us, she just can’t”
“Okay- she’s asleep now, I’ll carry her back up here and put her back in her own bed.”
“You do that- and see that she stays there,” I could hear Dad’s crutches clunk and his prophetic feet slide and still make the floorboards creak as he struggled to the stairs and down… I think he hesitated outside my door, then moved on.
Mom did not come in to check on me again.
Until almost five in the morning, And then she threatened to pull me out of bed if I didn’t come on my own, “Come, on, I’ll make you breakfast-“
So I dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, put on my sneakers and raced down to the kitchen. Where Grandma took one look at me and shook her head, “Boy oughtta have proper boots, and no- he don’t get to eat no breakfast until he’s finished his chores.”
I almost threw up again.
“Come on, boy, I’ll show you what you gotta do- every morning, five o’clock, ever day- even Sundays-“
I followed her to the barn. She pointed, “You let the dogs out first, then the goat. The goat leads the sheep to their pasture. The dogs make sure they follow him. Then you let the sheep out, and ya probably gotta go in there and chase them out. Then they follow the goat- you make sure they get inside their pasture and ya close the gate, you make damn sure you lock the gate or we’ll skin ya alive if the sheep get out. Then ya go back and clean up the slop on the floor in the barn, clean up the goat stall and the sheep stall, and the dog’s pen. That should be okay for you now- you’re older than I was when I had to do that.”
She let the dogs out. The dogs looked like they wanted to eat me alive. Then she let the goat out. Finally, she let the sheep out, she had me chase the last of the sheep out of their area (and cover my best sneakers in sheep poop.) and then she walked with me to the pasture, showed me how to open and close the pasture gate and how to make sure the latch caught and make sure by pulling as hard as I could on the gate.
Then she sent me back to the barn and expected me to know where to find the tools to clean out the stalls, I managed to squeak, “How do I do that?” just before she was out of ear shot.
She came back at me like she was going to kill me on the spot, “Don’t you know nothin? Ain’t nobody told you nothin? Christ, Jesus, boy-” she got the shovels and rakes and the wheelbarrow and showed me how to use them, showed me where to dump the wheelbarrow and where to get the fresh hay when that was done. Then she sighed, “No I guess nobody ever showed you this stuff- you not livin on no farm and all- well ya better learn fast- cause nobody else will do it for ya-” and she stalked away.
It felt like it took me hours to clean the stalls and make five trips to where I dumped the stinking hay full of sheep and goat poop, and dog poop. I was just about finished spreading new hay around the dog’s area when Mom scared me to death by appearing behind me while I was mumbling to myself about slavery being illegal.
“Yeah,” she said, “but ya better get used to it. Grandma’s done her household chores and she’s gone to the cemetery to see to your grandfather’s grave. It looks like you did everything she told you to… come on, how about some fresh eggs and home made bread?” She got a look at my hopelessly ruined sneakers and winced, ‘We better get you some farm boots, whatever they are- and if it makes you feel any better, Annie’s supposed to get up every morning at 6 and go get eggs from the hen house.” Mom shook her head and sighed, “Not my idea- but Grandma says kids have to get used to the idea that everybody has to work for what they eat.”
Mom walked ahead of me with her arms clenched tightly in front of her chest. She shuddered half a dozen times before she made me take my sneakers off, and remove my socks and leave them on the porch.
Dad was sitting at the kitchen table sulking and Annie stumbled in, sat down.
Mom said, “Your mother said they don’t eat until they’ve done their chores.”
And Dad said, “She’s not here, is she? Annie, you better eat quick, before your Grandmother gets back from the cemetery, and don’t expect to eat before you do your chores from now on.”
“Chores?” Annie gasped.
Dad nodded, “You have to go to the hen house and get every egg they’ve laid, and then you have to bring them in here without breaking one of them. Your grandmother says she will wash them off in the sink and then show you how to check to make sure they aren’t fertilized and next year you’ll have other chores, but that’s enough for now.”
“Chores?” Annie gasped again, like she’d been told that she’d been sold into slavery.
“Yes, chores-” Mom said, and turned toward Dad, “His sneakers are ruined, we better go get them some boots first thing-“
Dad nodded, “Her too-“
Mom’s breakfast tasted better than anything I’d ever eaten before.
Dad hobbled out into the yard with Annie and showed her how to fight with the chickens to get their eggs, and then he struggled to stand at the kitchen sink and wash the eggs they brought back in, said, “Grandma will have to show you how to check them, that never was my job-“
And then we had to find the box with my good shoes and wait for Annie to finish fussing in the washroom. Grandma came back from the cemetery and sat down looking exhausted, and no, she didn’t want to go to the store with us.
So we went to the store and Dad knew the old guy who owned it. We got rubber boots that came to our knees and we got ‘good’ sneakers that were on sale and the store owner handed Dad a list of what we needed for school and we came home loaded down with notebooks and pencils and rulers and paper…
And then Dad took Annie for a ride on a tractor (that had hand controls for the throttle… he told me that years later. a hand throttle and two sets of brakes. one he could stomp on with his prophetic feet and one that was a long lever he could pull with all his strength.)
So Mom rushed me upstairs and had me help her drag my stinky old mattress down to the trailer and exchange it for the one that Annie had slept on. The thought of sleeping in her germs gave me the creeps, but the thought that she might some day have to sleep in the stinky old moldy mattress made me feel a bit better.
Anyway, we got the mattress in place, it was almost an exact copy of the one it replaced, at least for size and thickness… And then mom sprayed it (and the room) with some kind of room freshener and made me help her put clean new sheets on the mattress and hurry back down stairs before anybody realized what we’d done.
Then Mom turned me loose to run around the farm. I found the baseball diamond my father had said was there and ran the bases five times. The backstop was rusty, but it was still there. There were two little dug outs, one behind a fence on either side of the diamond and there was a wooden fence around the outfield. I ran around the outfield once. all the way from home plate, down the first base side, all around the outfield and back down the third base side. I slid into ‘home’ and looked up to see my grandmother smile at me. I was shocked.
But she didn’t notice, “In a couple years, ya might be old enough to drive the rider lawn mower around this field here, that could be another one of your chores. Looks like you won’t mind that one. This was your grandfather’s idea. He’d feel real good if he could see you like this.” then she frowned, turned and plodded away, called over her shoulder, “It’s lunch time. Yer Ma’s cookin- better be good- I ain’t lettin just anybody cook for us, ya know.” and then as an afterthought, she called back over her shoulder one more time, “Leave them new sneakers yer wearin on the porch, we throwed the old ones away.”
I wanted to run ahead of her, but I didn’t. I walked what I figured was a respectful distance behind her. She glanced back a couple times and nodded, didn’t say a word. I guessed that meant she was glad I was following, far enough back so she wouldn’t have to talk to me or anything.
And then, as I sat on the porch, pulling my new and only a little muddy sneakers off, I heard her talking to my Dad and Mom in the kitchen, beyond the screen door, “I know it ain’t right that I been callin him, boy- but he’s named after his grandfather, and I just can’t call him that-“
“Call him Jack-” Dad said.
“Jack?” Grandma sounded surprised.
“That’s sort of an English nickname for- for his name.”
“Jack-” Grandma repeated, “Huh-“
I came to the screen door and peered in, feeling weird about being outside on the porch in my socks, but-
Grandma looked up and saw me, “Well don’t just stand there, come on in.”
Mom began to say something, “Is it okay-“
But Grandma cut her short, “We’re gonna call you “Jack” from now on-“
I looked at Mom. Mom shrugged, helplessly.
“Good- so get your bum in here, Jack, and eat your momma’s cookin before I change my mind and give you a couple more hours of chores to do before lunch time.”
And that’s how I became ‘Jack’, and not so much Shamus”